Queen Latifah is honoring her late mother, Rita Owens, with a new passion project.
The rapper, actress and producer will star in A&E's new documentary, Beyond Breathless, in which she opens up about her mother's experience with interstitial lung disease.
Owens was diagnosed with scleroderma, a form of interstitial lung disease that caused scarring on her lungs and hindered her breathing, in 2013. She was 65 years old when she died of complications from the disease in 2018. Now, Latifah hopes sharing her mom's ordeal will help others.
"Well, the truth is I did not want to make this documentary at all. I didn't want to live this experience. It was because of my mom. My mom wanted to make this documentary," Latifah, 50, tells PEOPLE. "My mom wanted to share her story. My mom wanted to help people. As far as I was concerned, I would keep her privacy until my last breath. But my mother being the educator, the teacher, the person with a huge heart who saw everyone as someone, who could make someone laugh and smile, even from a hospital bed — she's the one who wanted to make this documentary posthumously."
Here, Latifah opens up about the film and her mother's legacy. (To learn more about ILD, visit LungsandYou.com.)
Tell me why it was important for you to make this documentary.
I remember her being with the doctors, one particular doctor, and they [said that] her type of scleroderma and interstitial lung disease was rare. And that all the information that was being gleaned from her interactions with the doctors could help other people. She could have kept all that to herself. There are privacy laws you know, but she wanted to share whatever information that they could find, whatever new things that they could discover, that could help someone else. She wanted to share with people.
She literally wanted to share her body with science so that no one else would have to experience the things that she had gone through. And some of those things were going from being just a happy, vibrant life-living person — never smoked, never drank, not overweight — to suddenly not being able to breathe well, not being able to get around as easily, passing out in school and eventually having to require oxygen on a regular basis and having to have caregivers. It's difficult to watch someone who you know is so vibrant, who dances to house music, to not being able to drive their own car anymore because they have to manage oxygen tanks and timing and medicines. So whatever we can do to bring attention to this lung disease, this ILD — interstitial lung disease — and helping people to recognize it and see their doctors about it, and catch it early.
Can you break down your mom’s battle with ILD?
She thought she was just fatigued; she thought she was just working too much. One day she was teaching at Irvington High in New Jersey and we got the call that she had passed out and she was in the hospital. Initially, this was something that was tied to her heart, but as they started to trace it, and it took us a long time to get a diagnosis because it was a rare kind of thing. Her heart wasn't pumping at the rate that it should be. And that was making her, of course, lose her breath. But once they figured that out, they started treating the heart, then the heart started to get better. But then this thing started to become cyclical. Like something was happening, something else was going on. It wasn't the heart because the heart improved. So they started looking at the lungs, and then that's when they started to find the scarring.
It took us quite some time and a couple of different doctors to really get the diagnosis that she had scleroderma and that she had interstitial lung disease. And the scariest word that I think I ever heard was “chronic.” Chronic means it's not going to end, it's going to continue.
So she came and she lived with me, and [my cousin Tina] came and lived with me. Our family really just got tight and it's the more that you can have that kind of support the better it is. The earlier they can detect it the better it is for them to develop a plan with their doctors to figure out how to take care of themselves and be as independent as possible and to live as long as you can until there is a cure.
What did you learn from that time caring for your mother?
I learned to be faithful. I was very grateful. I learned to have a lot of compassion for anyone who's caring for someone who's not well in their family. It can take a lot out of you, but it's taking more out of them, so whenever you start feeling bad about yourself you think about the fight that they're fighting. And my mom was fighting that fight, and she managed to help us to keep the faith. We prayed through a lot of things and we literally saw a miracle because we came through some really, really, really difficult situations — life and death many times. And we came through those things, and I think it was her sense of humor. I know it was her faith that brought us all closer.
It also made me think about our healthcare system and how we really, hopefully, we got to get it together. I've been blessed to be in a position to be able to pull in a couple of people, but most people are not in my position. I was willing to spend every dime I had to have any extra moment I could, and I did. I went for it.
What do you hope people take away from you and your mom’s story and the documentary?
I'm just hoping that they would be educated about ILD. We want to save lives here. That's what we want to do at the end of the day until there is a cure, then we have to just keep fighting and moving forward and pushing through, and hopefully just bring the love and the compassion of what families go through when one is ill and we have to take care of each other.
It's also a little love for the caregivers, that they have to give themselves a break in there somewhere. That they have to take a moment and breathe. I know it's called Beyond Breathless, but we all have to take a moment and just breathe because it takes a lot to watch yourself go from being the one who is told what to do by your mom to be the one who has to tell your mom what to do.
How do you want people to remember your mom?
She would want to be remembered as someone who cared about children, who believed in them. She was a woman of faith. I think that literally, I can say thousands of people that she affected through her no less than 25 years of being an educator would agree with me. She's helped send kids to college, helped people believe in themselves who didn't believe in themselves, and went on to live their dreams, to go for it. She's a very special person. And to me, she's my mom, but she was my best friend. She's a very strong person and a beautiful person. I hope that that will be her legacy, as well as being so unselfish as to share her story with others.